A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Viking Press in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
The three things I love to read most? YA lit, historical fiction, and Asian-American lit. So when a book like Pioneer Girl comes along that combines an obsession with Little House on the Prairie and a narrator whose parents emigrated from Vietnam, I’m all in.
The basic premise is this: Lee Lien’s grandfather owned a small cafe in Vietnam in the 1960s. A lovely American reporter named Rose came to visit, asked lots of questions, and ended up leaving behind a little pin engraved with a picture of a house–whether by accident or on purpose, no one is certain. Lee’s mother, twelve at the time, kept the pin as a treasured keepsake of the kind American woman, but thinks nothing more of her.
Then, Lee, as a young girl, reads the Little House on the Prairie series, and discovers that a pin matching that same description was given to Laura Ingalls by her fiancee, Almanzo. And–wait! Their daughter’s name was Rose! In her youthful exuberance, she believes it must mean something, but she’s not certain what.
The book follows post-PhD Lee; having not yet retained a professorship, and feeling a bit aimless, she goes home to her mother and grandfather (and sometimes her brother, Sam,) for the summer. Her father died in an accident long ago, and her relationship with her mother has been strained for as long as she can remember.
At heart, Lee’s tale is one of a pioneering heart–Lee knows she’s meant for greater things than helping to run the family restaurant, and that there is something waiting for her out there, in the wide, open spaces of America. In her stir-craziness at home, she starts pulling at threads of the original story about Rose, trying to find the truth of one childhood myth, and ends up unravelling not only that, but the truths about the foundations of most of her life and childhood. As she travels and searches and researches, she ends up discovering that pioneering spirit that resides in most all of us, in one way or another. The most lovely moments are those in which Lee begins to realize that her own need and desire to be free (which she finds joy in comparing to Rose Wilder-Lane’s) really are just the same as her mother’s.
“In a way, Rose had been part of the dream, the memory, that had pushed my mother and grandfather out of Vietnam, back when the city of Saigon was crumbling around them. …A promise taken up, held on to for decades, even while Sam and I were reckless with our own history, searching for things we couldn’t yet name. If this Rose was the same Rose of the Little House books, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, then she had defined a part of American desire that my mother understood just as well.”
In the end, Lee finds not only her own way, but a way to reconcile things at home.
Pioneer Girl is insightful and extremely well-written. If the plot synopsis makes it seem heavy, have no fear–Nguyen keeps it light and enjoyable, with the addition of some pleasant side characters along the way. Lee, herself, is extraordinarily complex, but it’s the thoughtfulness of the prose that makes this novel worth reading.
Warning: three f-bombs, and a couple of non-graphic sexual encounters. 3.5 stars, which would be higher if it weren’t for the language.